Warning: SPOILERS for Agents of SHIELD season 4, episode 12, "Hot Potato Soup" ahead
On the one hand, the reveal of the Watchdogs’ Superior on this week’s Agents of SHIELD is something of a let-down; given all the frenzied speculation surrounding this mysterious individual’s identity – not to mention all the weeks of build-up to it – the final result was rather anti-climactic.
On the other hand, however, what the character lacks in sizzling dramatics is made up for by what he brings to the table narratively – particularly how he interacts with and reinforces who is now clearly the show’s newest nemesis, Dr. Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah), who has easily taken Grant Ward’s duplicitous place. The remainder of the season should prove to be emotionally and thematically fraught, especially if what the cast members have been saying about the final stretch of episodes is true.
Meet Anton Ivanov
A reclusive industrialist, military antique collector, and apparent body-builder, Anton Ivanov (Zach McGowan) is the Superior, the enigmatic figure secretly financing the Watchdogs and leading their ideological charge to purge every last Inhuman from the face of the Earth. It’s a remarkably bland bio; at least ex-Agent Felix Blake (Titus Welliver), the previously revealed leader of the militia, has a pre-existing personal connection with Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and team, and at least he was a carryover from another arm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A Russian submarine owner doesn’t make for an inherently dynamic personality, let alone a terrifying baddie.
But one of Agents of SHIELD’s great strengths is in utilizing various materials of various levels of quality to great effect, deploying them in unforeseen ways (such as the previously-mentioned Agent Blake, who was initially created to be a throwaway character in one of the Marvel One-Shot short films) and to unexpected results. Part of this results from the writers’ tenacity, their willingness to stick with or otherwise revisit various storylines time and again, year after year; the Inhumans themselves are the perfect example of this, becoming the show’s glue that binds Coulson’s miraculous resurrection, Hydra’s entire existence, the (short-lived) emergence of the Secret Warriors, and, now, the Watchdogs all together into a seamless whole. There is little doubt that Ivanov will be treated the same way, with the series using the character in both direct and indirect ways for the remainder of the season – and beyond, should a fifth season be in the cards.
The other part of SHIELD’s storytelling success results from the magic of its writing, even if its plotting or characters aren’t always up to complete snuff. Anton Ivanov’s entrance easily attests to this, as it’s arguably one of the best introductions to any characters anywhere in the MCU: his menacing stride, deliciously evil speech (“Man is superior to machine, and I’m the superior man”), and malevolent downing of vodka and sniffing of onions is all pitch perfect. And behind it all, of course, is McGowan’s delivery, which also manages to stick the landing flawlessly. Theatrics over substance isn’t usually a recipe for long-term success, but it does make for great scenes, and it’s nonetheless appreciated in the short term.
The Superior’s crusade
Anton Ivanov has two goals. The first is, unsurprisingly, to hunt down and terminate each and every last Inhuman on the planet, to allow humanity to reclaim the Earth. (His rationale for such visceral hatred circles back to his introductory monologue, to his hatred of modern machines and technology and to his ironclad belief that they’re inferior to mankind. It’s not much, but, then again, racism doesn’t exist because of rationality.) This has been the Watchdogs’ stated goal since their first appearance late last season, and it remains unchanged at their topmost level – though it should be interesting to see how Ivanov changes this hardline ideology as he continues to interact with the likes of Aida (Mallory Jansen), Dr. Radcliffe’s Life Model Decoy assistant (and bodyguard).
His second – and far more interesting – crusade is to track down the individual he feels is responsible for all of the recent alien activity on Earth, and that goes well beyond the widescale activation of Inhumans that we saw begin in the second season finale and includes the likes of the Kree’s visitations and the Chitauri’s invasion back in the first Avengers: Agent Phil Coulson himself. It’s an interesting twist, and a neat variation on the theme – how many times have the tables been turned and it’s the ragged band of protagonist underdogs who are assiduously attempting to piece together the clandestine enemy’s identity and level of influence across a wide range of events? Positing Coulson as the consummate man in black is fun, it reinforces the audience’s belief that it’s in on SHIELD’s deepest, darkest secrets, and it continues the series’s fundamental preoccupation with changing the perspective surrounding its main cast of characters (such as transforming Agent Daisy Johnson [Chloe Bennet] into the illegal vigilante Quake, or the changing nature of Dr. Radcliffe’s evil).
It is a move that also ups the narrative stakes for our characters. Having a (superior) man who is unshakeable in his conviction that Coulson is personally responsible for the range of extraterrestrial developments afflicting the globe and will stop at nothing to make him pay is an interesting angle for a sub-villain to pursue. Here’s to hoping that it’ll not only be enough to carry us through to the end of the season, but to also help transform the Superior into something much more engaging and substantive.